Seguin seeking big-league work

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

The day before the 2010 NHL entry draft in Los Angeles, top prospect Tyler Seguin(notes) found himself in a hotel elevator with Boston Bruins veteran Mark Recchi(notes). He introduced himself. They shook hands.

Later that night, Seguin ended up in the elevator with Recchi again.

“It was a little weird, but it was trying to tell me something,” Seguin said, “because next day it was the draft and I went to the Bruins.”

The Bruins selected Seguin second overall on June 25, and now he not only could be on the same team with Recchi, he could be skating on the same line with the 42-year-old. But that’s only if Seguin takes the elevator up to the NHL this season. The possibility remains he could take it back down to the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League.

Had the Taylor vs. Tyler debate ended differently – with the Edmonton Oilers taking Seguin first overall instead of Taylor Hall(notes) – this would be less of an issue. Seguin probably would be playing in the NHL immediately, even though he is only 18. The Oilers need help at center.

Had Seguin gone second overall to the Toronto Maple Leafs, who traded the pick to the Bruins in the Phil Kessel(notes) deal a year ago, same thing. Had he gone third overall to the Florida Panthers or fourth overall to the Columbus Blue Jackets…well, you can go down the list.

But the fact is, Seguin went to the Bruins. This is a team that should have made the Eastern Conference final last season, falling short only after choking on a 3-0 series lead – and a 3-0 lead in Game 7 – in the second round against the Philadelphia Flyers. The Bruins are stacked at center with Marc Savard(notes), David Krejci(notes), Patrice Bergeron(notes) and Gregory Campbell(notes), and they have salary cap problems.

Seguin has been playing center in rookie camp and is expected to stay there when the Bruins play rookie games on Wednesday and Thursday against the New York Islanders at TD Garden in Boston. But he’s expected to move to the wing at Boston’s training camp and for NHL preseason games – perhaps with Bergeron in the middle and Recchi on the other side, though Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli said that was yet to be determined.

The position switch is no problem for Seguin, who said he is “comfortable and confident” on the wing and would “be a goalie if that’s what it took for me to make the team.” Chiarelli said the cap situation really was not a factor. It’s simply up to Seguin to show he's worthy.

“I think it’d be a very, very small percentage of it not being in my control,” Seguin said. “I think if I’m good enough, I’m going to make it. I think if they want me on the team, they’re going to make space for me. If they don’t think I’m ready, then I’m going back. I think it’s all in my hands.”

Seguin is the most heralded draft pick the Bruins have had since Joe Thornton(notes), who went first overall in 1997. Thornton jumped right into the NHL at age 18 – and struggled badly. In 55 games, the future NHL scoring champion managed only three goals, seven points and a minus-6 rating.

Thornton wore No. 19, as Seguin does now. But beyond that, the comparison is unfair. Thornton joined a team that had finished last in the league the previous season. If Seguin makes the Bruins, he will have more support and less pressure to be a savior.

Perhaps a more apt comparison is with another No. 19 – former Detroit Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman, Seguin’s idol. No one is saying Seguin is necessarily going to become the next Yzerman. But he’s trying to be.

“I definitely pattern myself after him,” said Seguin, who had a red Yzerman jersey hanging over his bed at home in Brampton, Ont. “I look up to him because of everything in his career. He was very skilled, but he also needed to mature as a player and get more responsible, and that was kind of me in my rookie year and last year. He took off, and he was a great leader.”

The first time Seguin met Yzerman, he wasn’t as calm as he was in that elevator with Recchi. It was during the 2008-09 season. The Whalers are based in suburban Detroit, and Yzerman, then vice-president of the Red Wings, came to watch Christian Thomas, the son of friend Steve Thomas, skate for the London Knights.

“I just wanted to get on my hand and knee and ask for an autograph,” Seguin said, “But obviously I wanted to be professional.”

That’s what Yzerman would be. Seguin isn’t quite as quiet as Yzerman, but he has a lot of his qualities – from how he speaks publicly, to his competitiveness on the ice and to his commitment off it.

“Tyler’s not shy, but he likes to carry himself in that classy way – do everything that’s right, do it the right way, don’t talk bad about anybody, don’t offend anybody, just play the game the right way and be a class person,” said Mike Vellucci, the Whalers’ coach and general manager. “I believe he did take that from Steve.”

Seguin started out on the wing as a rookie in the OHL, just as he might in the NHL. Vellucci said most 16-year-olds would have fought it, but Seguin understood what was happening. There were players in front of him. It would give him a better opportunity right away – and the experience might come in handy someday.

After Vellucci took over as coach during that season and moved Seguin to the top line, he began to blossom. Seguin continued to excel last season, tying Hall for the OHL scoring title with 106 points. He showed a killer instinct.

The Whalers were way up against a weak team one night when they had a 5-on-3 advantage. Seguin looked at Vellucci.

“OK, Seguin,” Vellucci said. “You’re up.”

Seguin started to jump over the boards, then looked back at Vellucci.

“Just kidding,” Vellucci said.

Vellucci wasn’t about to pile it on. Seguin really wasn’t, either. He’s just always ready to compete.

“He wants it,” Vellucci said. “He didn’t care what the score was.”

Seguin handled the Taylor vs. Tyler draft drama very well, while Vellucci tried to help him manage it – keeping media requests at bay, even sewing an ‘A’ on his jersey instead of a ‘C.’

“I didn’t give him the ‘C’ last year, and to be honest with you, he probably should have had it,” Vellucci said. “I thought it was too much to give him, with all the media hype…

“But he is definitely captain material. He’s not your rah-rah guy, but he leads by example. His practice habits were outstanding last year – more committed in practice than any player I’ve ever had. To me, that’s what a captain is, a guy who leads by example, the Yzerman, (Nicklas) Lidstrom mold, where you don’t have to say a lot, but you back it up when you do speak.”

Yzerman himself has taken notice.

“He’s got great skill, good size and tremendous vision…tremendous vision,” said Yzerman, now general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning. “It’s not going out on a limb, but I think he’s going to be a special player.”

Seguin pushed himself in the offseason – showing up early for Whalers workouts, staying late, doing extra on his own, doing more than Vellucci has ever seen – and it showed when he wowed everyone at the NHL scouting combine. He’s in great shape, with a lot of lean muscle on his 6-foot-1, 182-pound frame.

But whether he has NHL strength at this stage to go along with his speed, skill and quick release remains to be seen, and that could be the main factor that decides whether he ends up in Boston or Plymouth.

"He's a strong kid, and he's tested well," Chiarelli said. "It's being strong every day. It just wears you down. It's being consistently strong. There's no question his offensive prowess will surface, but it's the little stuff – the strength along the walls, protecting pucks, not being stripped. That's important to the success of your team."

If Seguin doesn’t make the Bruins – or plays a few games in Boston, then gets sent back to junior – how will he handle it? Probably like he handled it when he was cut from Canada’s world junior team last season.

“Personally, I think it was crazy that they cut him,” Vellucci said. “Tyler and I sat down. We had a good conversation. He was hurt. But the first thing I said, ‘There’s a couple ways you can go. You can pout about it, or you can prove them wrong and have a great couple months.’ And he had two great months.”

Remember that Mike Keenan once cut Seguin’s idol from a Canada Cup team. It only fueled Yzerman’s competitiveness further, and he went on to win Olympic gold for Team Canada both as a player and executive director.

Vellucci said if Seguin returns to the Whalers, he will be their captain. Seguin said he would have unfinished business.

“Yeah, it would be (tough to go back to junior), just the way the season went this year,” Seguin said. “I think I did a lot in junior. But if I went back to junior, I’ve still got that (league) championship that I’ve never won.”

This much seems clear: If Seguin does take the elevator down, it won’t be long before he finds himself up with the Bruins again.

“He’s just a real confident kid, and I think that’s part of his success, his makeup,” said Thomas, whose son has played with and against Seguin for years. “You have to be a confident guy to be as successful as he is. He’s a tremendous player, and he’s going to make his mark in the league…If not this year, next year for sure.”

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